Hunger strike: a last resort for Kurdish prisoners
/ edited on 6 March 2019.*
More than 300 political prisoners are currently on hunger strike in Turkey, some for more than a hundred days now. They are denouncing the prison conditions of the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan, in addition to the extensive political repression in Turkey.
According to a reporter who wishes to remain anonymous, this hunger strike is a “clarion call” in a society where dissenting voices are stifled.
Translated by Kelly Field — Edited by the author.
The current hunger strike is neither sacrificial nor limited to an individual's claims. It is a form of collective political protest.
THREE-HUNDRED AND TWENTY-ONE PEOPLE are willingly putting their lives in danger to prove that they are still a collective force capable of challenging the State which is trying to crush all forms of opposition. To compromise one’s physical integrity is no longer just a risk or a collateral damage, but the action itself. However, the current hunger strike is neither sacrificial nor limited to an individual’s claims. It is a form of awakening of collective political protest In Turkey.
Leyla Güven, a female Kurdish politician and Member of Parliament for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the third largest political group in Parliament, started her hunger strike on 8 November 2018. On 22 January 2018, she had been sent to the Diyarbakir prison for her statements against the Turkish military operation in Afrin, located in the Kurdish areas of Northern Syria. Leyla, who was released on parole on 25 January 2019, has been on hunger strike for more than 100 days. Since then, 321 prisoners in sixty different prisons1 have joined her in the strike and some of them have been at it for more than sixty days. Nineteen male and female Kurdish politicians outside of prisons have also joined the movement.
IHD, 2019. “Yaşama Ses Ver”, Press release published on 18 February 2019. ↩
... the last authorised visit had nothing to do with ending his solitary confinement, but served to silence the rumours that he had died in prison.
This movement denounces the prison conditions of the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan, one of the main founders of the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party). He has been serving a life sentence on Imrali Island since 1999, where only five other prisoners are held. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) expressed its concerns in a March 2018 report(in French) about Öcalan’s strict solitary confinement since April 2015.
While many parliamentarians visited Öcalan in 2014 and early in 2015 in the framework of the peace talks between the government and the Kurdish movement, he has not been able to see his lawyer since 2011 and has not seen his relatives since April 2015, except for a short visit from his brother in 2016 and last January(in French). This last authorized visit had nothing to do with ending his solitary confinement, but rather served to disprove the rumours that he had died in prison.
The silencing of this figure of the Kurdish movement for nearly four years is in keeping with the State’s current refusal of a political approach to solving the Kurdish issue. Despite being incarcerated, he had indeed played an important role, both symbolic and concrete, in the peace talks that began officially between the State and the movement in 20131. The talks ended during the campaign for the June 2015 legislative elections and following the return of armed clashes between the State and the Kurdish armed movement during the summer of 2015.
In addition to showing support for Ocalan’s rights, this hunger strike is also a protest against the general oppression of political actors who have chosen to act within legal institutions, thus killing any hope for peace in Turkey in a near future. It is also a reaction to the stifling of any criticism against the current administration.
According to a report published in December 2018 by the HDP, fourteen of its ex-Members of Parliament (whose parliamentary immunity was lifted in 2016) are detained and twelve were sentenced to prison but are still free while waiting for the exhaustion of domestic remedies. Fifty former HDP co-mayors are also currently detained (twenty-nine are in pre-trial detention and twenty-one have been sentenced).
In a November 2018 ruling, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) condemned Turkey for the pre-trial detention of former HDP co-president, Selahattin Demirtas. The court ruled that “The extensions of Mr. Demirtas detention, (…) pursued the predominant ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate (…)”. Selahattin Demirtas, who is being held in custody since November 2016, was sentenced to four years and eight months in prison last September on charges of “terrorist propaganda”. His trial is still going on for other crimes for which he could be sentenced to up to 142 years in prison. Turkey has yet to take measures to apply the ECHR ruling. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, openly declared(in French) that Turkey is not bound by the ECHR’s rulings, even though it is party to the related Convention.
In addition to the elected and political figures of the pro-Kurdish party, numerous journalists (more than 165 journalists are in prison according to Reporters Without Borders2), researchers3, students, artists, and political opponents arrested in the post-coup purges of 15 July 2016, as well as many other members of civil society are also being put behind bars. Internationally recognised businessman and civil society sponsor, Osman Kavala, has been in prison for more than a year without having been indicted. All these people are either incarcerated or subject to prosecution under the counter-terrorism law, an exceptional body of laws that is used as a weapon against any political contention in Turkey.
The Turkish government and the Kurdish guerrilla had already started secret talks in 2009, called the “Oslo Process”, which ended, without success, in 2011. ↩
472 academics are on trial for signing a peace petition in January 2016. While most of their trials are still ongoing, 99 of them have already been charged and sentenced (from one year and three months to three years sentence). ↩
Civil society groups who choose to march without authorisation are walking on thin ice
A movement from the inside
The repression and events of the past three years have substantially cleared the streets of any opposition movement: resurgence of the armed conflict between the Turkish State and the Kurdish movement and the ensuing repression; deadly attacks on political events (in Suruç in July 2015 and in Ankara in October 2015); and widespread repression following the coup attempt.
When there are authorised political meetings, they are usually held away from city-centres and are heavily surrounded by the police and army. Civil society groups who decide to take to the streets without authorisation are walking on thin ice. The Saturday Mothers, who were allowed to gather once a week for 700 weeks, have recently been prevented from doing so; the November 25 demonstration on violence against women was also blocked last November; the LGBTI Pride march and the May 1 protests have been banned for several years now and are immediately broken up. A march initiated by pro-Kurdish political figures in support of the people on hunger strike was recently was recently broken up by authorities in the centre of Istanbul.
In 2017, two teachers laid off during vast purges in the public service1 went on a hunger strike which lasted 324 days. They occupied a central square in Ankara in order to encourage broader mobilisation and to put pressure on the authorities. One was incarcerated for six months during her hunger strike and then sentenced to six years and three months in prison for belonging to a terrorist organisation.
While the possibility of protest “outside” is dwindling, political prisoners are now the reflection of the opposition and mirror its actual extent. If it is becoming increasingly more common for political party members, researchers, journalists, public servants, and students to have spent time in prison, the thin line between the inside and outside is growing more porous each day.
In the current context, this hunger strike is a new awakening. Members of the Kurdish movement have regularly resorted to hunger strikes in prison as a form of political protest. The last one of this scale was in the Fall of 2012 when more than 660 inmates stopped eating. They were protesting the infringement of the rights of the Kurdish people and Abdullah Öcalan’s prison conditions. After 68 days, Öcalan requested the prisoners to put an end to their hunger strike, through a message delivered by his brother who had been authorized to visit him. This action pushed the authorities to lift Öcalan’s solitary confinement and marked the beginning of first phase of official negotiations between the Kurdish movement and the Turkish state in the Spring of 2013.
If this is an uninterrupted and unlimited hunger strike, it is not a “death fast” in which protesters would only drink water. The inmates presently on hunger strike drink sweetened water, with lemon if possible.
They also request vitamin B1 tablets and a certain type of carbonates, as recommended by the Union of Turkish Doctors2. These vitamins and minerals that can prevent the serious effects of hunger strikes, as well as close medical attention, are not available in all prisons according to a a report released by the Association for Human Rights.
According to the data gathered between 1980 and 2014 by Human Rights organizations in Turkey, 94 prisoners died due to hunger strikes in prison or while continuing their hunger strikes after release (44 between 2000 and 2007)3.
As part of the massive purges following the failed coup of 15 July 2016, more than 150,000 civil servants lost their jobs. See the website Turkey purge for more information. ↩
Of these 94 people, 71 died in prison, 23 others lost their lives after being released. ↩
prisoners participated in a hunger strike in the fall of 2012
People’s resources against arbitrariness are not extinguished
In Turkey, news of the movement is only available through certain opposition media on the Internet, and it is risky to build a large political movement in public space.
It is crucial to create awareness among foreign civil societies through foreign media and support networks, and for international organizations to send monitoring missions to put pressure on Turkey. Leyla Güven, the HDP Member of Parliament who initiated this hunger strike, recently sent a letter to the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) and to the President of the European Parliament. Abdullah Öcalan is still in solitary confinement despite the CPT’s recommendations in March 2018, and violations of detainees’ rights are constantly being reported by human rights associations, yet international institutions remain silent.
In spite of being severely suppressed, Turkish human rights defenders continue to protest, monitor and testify on human rights violations. This hunger strike could serve as a clarion call: people’s resources against arbitrariness are not extinguished.